Notes on Young Money

In Weezy-ology, there is good Lil Wayne and bad Lil Wayne. Good Lil Wayne is the dastardly New Orleans weed head, the sizzurp-drinking gangster that sires children with beautiful actresses, gets locked up on gun and drug charges and records hours and hours of songs; a fountain of countless punchlines so funny he personifies comedy, and the self-proclaimed “best rapper alive.” Bad Lil Wayne is the Auto-Tuned fool, the guy who straps on a guitar at shows even though he can barely play it, the “son” who used to kiss his “daddy” Birdman on the lips, the would-be artiste who sang too much on Tha Carter III, maker of the pillow-humping ode “Lollipop,” and the lovable ragamuffin whom teenage girls and middle-aged ladies from The View treat like a dreadlocked kewpie doll. We tend to treat these sides of Dwayne Carter as binary objects, deifying the former and cracking jokes about the latter. Still, they are one and the same man, and the Young Money clique is the summation of Lil Wayne’s true ambition.

First, there’s Drake. Cut from the same cloth as Kanye West and influenced by the school of underground hip-hop, Drake’s songs are all angst and determination. With each new hit, he seems to demand the success the audience should grant him in a flat croon; or describe the success as it’s happening to him, along with all the new girls (again, his audience) he’s sexing.

While Drake personifies Young Money’s pop dreams, Nicki Minaj is a canny bit of industry marketing. Yes, she fulfills the time-honored tradition of having at least one female rapper in the hip-hop crew, and she delivers the requisite punany talk. But she also has a rap style amusingly similar to that of Lil Wayne and spouts knee-slapper punchlines with Tourette’s-like trash talk. Minaj has promise, but she still seems undefined as an artist. Nevertheless, she has already landed on the cover of The Fader despite not having an official single yet (unlike Drake, who has an EP but not an official album).

Tyga, with his 2008 novelty hit “Coconut Juice,” hews to the Southern swag scene and its irrepressibly catchy (and often annoyingly goofy) club anthems. If Young Money is an NBA team, then Tyga’s the free agent who adds a jolt of energy. But what about Jae Millz, a former prospect in the never-happened New York renaissance from a few years back; Mack Maine, Gudda Gudda, Shanell, Lil Chuckee, T-Streetz and Lil Twist? These are the bench players, mix tape fodder that can mean-mug for the blogs and Mack Maine, Lil Wayne’s right-hand man, could be viewed as a veteran who helps mold the team. But in realistic terms, he hasn’t done much after cofounding Young Money with Lil Wayne in 2007.

Young Money’s first compilation, We Are Young Money, is not very good. It’s full of lame Penthouse letters and dopey beats. Lil Wayne and co. seem driven by more libido than Tiger Woods in Vegas; as he puts it, “I wish I could f**k every girl in the world.”

There isn’t much of a pedigree for rap crew compilations: they’re either “meh”-type decent, like the Ruff Ryders’ Ryde or Die comps, or absolutely terrible, like Irv Gotti Presents the Murderers. But even a placeholder like Junior M.A.F.I.A.’s Conspiracy can produce hits if a hot artist is sponsoring it. And Lil Wayne is much hotter than Notorious B.I.G. was during his lifetime (rest in peace). Hence, Young Money’s “Bedrock,” which sits near the top of the Billboard charts.

But back to the introduction: Lil Wayne may be a conflicted artist, but he’s not an enigma. There’s no mystery to him. In fact, there’s probably too much information available on him. (Do I really want to know that he went to the dentist to fix his rotting teeth?) The amazing thing about him, much like Eminem in his prime, is that he’s an open book, and his contradictory impulses are visible for all to see.

I suppose that hardcore rap fans view mix tapes such as No Ceilings as a pure form of art, while Tha Carter III is a compromised industry product meant to fuel his stardom. But Lil Wayne is making a popular form of art that is most successful when it reaches a wide audience. Jay-Z wasn’t considered the “best rapper alive” because he made 1996’s Reasonable Doubt, which didn’t go gold until well after he was a superstar. He became “Jay Hova” when he made 1998’s Vol. 2 … Hard Knock Life, which was certified five times platinum.

To venerate one aspect of Lil Wayne’s work while attempting to ignore the likes of We Are Young Money and Rebirth seems myopic at best. However, it indicates that unlike Jay-Z, who successfully merged his corporate thug mentality with a sweet tooth for memorable melodies into complex masterworks like The Black Album, Lil Wayne has yet to make an album that successfully encompasses all sides of his personality, from the funny MF of Dedication 2 to the Lothario of “Lollipop” and “Mrs. Officer.” (Although, in my opinion, Tha Carter III came pretty close.)

Those are personal stakes for Lil Wayne. But the Young Money crew that has tethered its success to the 27-year-old superstar will undoubtedly be affected, too. Despite its flaws, We Are Young Money reflects his vision of what popular hip-hop will sound like for the next few years: lots of Auto-Tune and lots of sex jams, all interpreted through a free-associative lyrical style.

(Rhapsody – March 18, 2010)

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